Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (Watkins, 2019)
Partly published in Japan in 2007, Super Consciousness first appeared in English under Watkins imprint two years later, near the end of Wilson’s writing career. This reprint, with it’s redesigned cover and larger format, has a new introduction by Wilson’s bibliographer Colin Stanley who alludes to an obituary which noted that Wilson’s legacy lies in the growing field of consciousness studies. The paradoxical limitations of ‘everyday’ existential consciousness – “the law of entropy in prehension” as he once philosophically put it – was indeed Wilson’s primary obsession from his debut and it runs through every other thing he wrote. Generally critics and interviewers did not share his single minded devotion towards this problem, or the problem (as he saw it) and sometimes even went out of their way to avoid talking about it. As the 21st century advances, the problem has become more and more acute, but an understanding of Wilson’s phenomenologically influenced philosophy can help combat it. A deep immersion in and careful practice of these disciplines can essentially thwart this “law of entropy” in consciousness, although the latter depends on the kind of commitment that the existentialists and their philosophical ancestor, the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, demanded we live out.
“It has always seemed to me that Husserl is the greatest of modern thinkers” writes Wilson In Super Consciousness. There follows an excellent short analysis of Husserl; readers wishing to know more should turn to the recently reissued Introduction To The New Existentialism to find out why Wilson thought so highly of this very challenging philosopher. “But how can a person [benefit] from Husserl’s phenomenology?” Wilson quotes the philosopher Paul Ricoer, who is speaking about what Husserl called ‘bracketing’, the ability to train the perception to stand apart from our innate prejudices towards experience. Ricoer states that this bracketing helps rid consciousness of the naïveté it usually holds, a state which Husserl called the natural attitude, a fundamentally passive attitude which takes the world as-it-is (a ‘given’) for granted. Against this, Husserl’s ‘phenomenological attitude’ constantly questions and interrogates reality – in artistic terms, it is a brisk and active stroll around an object (Cubism) rather than a passive single viewpoint (Renaissance perspective, standing still). Phenomenological consciousness (essentially the ‘Super Consciousness’ of the book’s title) is like a kind of hand or appendage, a tactile and active investigation into reality. Flat, passive consciousness merely reflects it’s outer environment, dimly: ‘super consciousness’ can illuminate and essentially change the meaning of that supposedly ‘outer’ environment. Despite what hostile critics have written about Wilson, few if any have tackled the phenomenological foundations of his views on consciousness.
“But how?, the reader wants to ask. What is the trick of transforming ordinary perception into creative vision?” Wilson’s question sounds mystical but it is rooted in the most influential philosophical discipline of the past century, a philosophy which is noted for it’s rigorous scepticism. However, as Wilson explained in the early part of his career, religion and mysticism, when stripped of their local dogmas, essentially question what we perceive as ‘ordinary’ reality, thereby suggesting that ‘normal’ perception is at best partial. This, Wilson goes on to say in Super Consciousness, is the key to understanding the work of the most astute poets (“Read Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind, and you can feel the ‘phenomenological vision’”). Both Blake and Yeats criticised the partial mind and Rupert Brooke developed a technique of looking at ordinary objects or scenes and transforming them into an intense poetic vision rather like Van Gogh’s canvasses of sunflowers or corn fields. Wilson interprets this as a use of the phenomenological method of ‘intentionality’, the ability to grasp the reality of experience, rather than our usual dull and passive ‘reception’ of everyday events. Transforming this drab perception into an active phenomenological or poetic one requires a shift from the naive (natural) attitude to the intentional attitude – the attitude that “‘seeing’ was in itself a creative act”. A serious recognition and understanding of this intentional nature of perception is essential to this transformation – “what Ricoer meant by ‘the very seeing is discovered as a doing’”.
Wilson’s core philosophy is summarised in the twelfth chapter of Super Consciousness, itself modelled on a section of his Beyond The Outsider (1965; this book is currently out of print but the relevant chapter is reprinted in Watkins’ compendium The Ultimate Colin Wilson). Super Consciousness, he notes, is “constructed rather like one of those seminars I used to give in the 1960’s at the Esalen Institute”, the hub of the Human Potential Movement which counted the psychologist Abraham Maslow amongst it’s visitors. Maslow, a supporter of Wilson’s philosophical stance, made him aware of the ‘peak experience’, a bubbling state of joy in seemingly ordinary circumstances (Wilson had already described this experience in his debut, The Outsider, Hesse spoke of ‘Mozart and the stars’ in his novel Steppenwolf, for instance). Despite their mutual support – Maslow references Wilson in several of his works and Wilson eventually wrote a full length study on Maslow’s post-Freudian psychology – neither could agree on how the peak (here, also ‘flow’) experience occurred. For Maslow, they just happened randomly, for Wilson, they were products of intentional consciousness. “I disagreed with Maslow for a simple reason” writes Wilson in Super Consciousness. “I had noticed that if a crisis looms before us, then suddenly disappears, we are hurled into a state of happiness and optimism”. This is well documented in the ‘case histories’ presented throughout The Outsider and later in the series (the ‘Outsider Cycle’ 1956 – ‘66) and could easily be misunderstood as too much of a commonplace to be a subject for philosophy. Surely once a crisis is over we feel relieved and happy, and that’s all? Analysing this experience phenomenologically, Wilson thinks this is too simple – it is not, as we commonly imagine, the crisis itself which forces us into a peak experience, but the amount of intentionality we throw into this experience that causes the peak or flow. Our minds focus, grasp and hold reality, briefly, and then let go, but it is this intentionality which is responsible, not the arbitrary stimulus of a crisis. The peak experience is an awareness of what is already there, but we quickly forget due to our ingrained laziness and habit (Husserl had much to say about the latter). An Outsider like Dostoyevsky, reprieved in front of a firing squad, never forgot it.
The Romantics, Wilson believes, were the first mass type of this ‘Outsider’, wanting more life and more freedom but not sure how to achieve it. Too many, as discussed in his work (including here) suffered from addictions, depression and chose to commit suicide – Wilson calls this ‘The Ecclesiastes Effect’ in a chapter of that title. The young Wilson, no stranger to such bleak moods, read poetry to stave off what William James called ‘vastations’. Good poets, Wilson thinks, possess a faculty for tuning in to the reality of the ‘otherness’ of things. This is latent in almost everyone although at present it functions mostly on a level of sexual fantasy – eventually, he thinks, it will be developed to “bring the same intensity to all fantasy”, what he labels ‘Faculty X’ (originally, the ‘phenomenological faculty’). So Wilson dismisses the ‘sexual explosion’ of Romantics such as Rousseau and his descendants – Foucault’s works, for instance, are “a disguised polemic, arguing for a kind of Dionysian explosion of repressed impulses”. Wilson, a criminologist as much as a philosopher, understood too much about the psychology of sex crime to let such philosophical sleight of hand go unnoticed. “It is slightly alarming”, he writes, “to realise that many perfectly respectable philosophers have been saying the same kind of thing for the past two centuries”. This, thinks Wilson, is due to a philosophical misunderstanding of our own conscious lives, the idea that our minds respond only to painful stimuli such as crisis or become imaginatively creative via sexually charged fantasy (which ends up with the baleful result of sex crime, if taken to it’s illogical conclusion). What we need to do is understand how our minds interpret the world, shape and colour it’s meaning, and try to harness this power or faculty of ‘cosmic consciousness’.
This innate yet slumbering ability was given the term Faculty X as Wilson thought his way around such problems in the first fifteen or so years of his investigations. He would often discuss this as the problem of the ‘near and the far’, a romantic longing for the distant horizon obscured by frustration with the repetitive boredom of the everyday details of living. This motif is plentiful in Romantic literature – “as for living, our servants can do that for us” is one of Wilson’s most used examples – and in Super Consciousness he writes at length about two obscure Romantics, Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Wackenroder. The chapter in which they appear (‘The Near And The Far’) is one of the most absorbing in the book and deserves close reading. We think of the near as familiar, obvious and trivial – the sixth chapter discusses this type of nihilism and it’s paradoxes – and the far as ineffable, distant, magical yet fundamentally unreachable. This is the pessimism of Beckett, Sartre, Camus and the existentialists, of Derrida and Foucault and the postmodernists. And as Wilson was at pains to point out, it is rooted in a fallacy which first became apparent with the Romantics who tried (and mostly failed) to bridge this yawning abyss between the near and the far, to develop the allusive Faculty X.
With the exception of the two final chapters (‘Philosophy’ and ‘Achieving Power Consciousness’) most of the other chapters and the postscript are short and punchy; a look into Proust’s moments bienheureux (moments of wellbeing) is a mere three pages long but crams a huge amount of information into such a tight space – Wilson had a rare talent of compressing diverse or seemingly contradictory theories into new hybrids. Proust’s famous Swann’s Way episode was one of the primary influences on Wilson’s Faculty X theory, for it was during this moment that Marcel had ceased to be mediocre, accidental or mortal and had remembered with full clarity the reality of other times and places – his childhood in this case. “It is typical of Beckett” writes Wilson, “that, in a slim book on Proust written in 1930, he treats the moments bienheureux as little more than an oddity of memory and habit”. And with typical neurotic thoroughness, Beckett goes on to offer “an abbreviated list of the 60-odd such experiences” though he seems to be, Wilson continues, more obsessed with “man’s slavery to time and to slow disintegration”, the opposite of Proust’s transformative moment. Proust had achieved what Wilson called a “strange double focus” of the near and the far, or Faculty X. Digging deep into Proust’s gargantuan text, Wilson takes note of Proust’s important observation that “we deliver on life a pessimistic judgement which we suppose to be accurate” and suggests that Proust might have well had Beckett and his fellow nihilists in mind when he wrote it. Beckett, preoccupied as he was by ‘the near’, which he interprets as trivial and the boring, was existing in a state of mono-consciousness. In his ‘moment’ Proust was experiencing duo-consciousness, the “strange double focus” of Faculty X. In the eighth chapter of Super Consciousness Wilson investigates this state (‘The Two Selves’) via psychology and split-brain research. Moving through the book, he reassesses these ideas historically (‘the romantic theory of evolution’ a feminine driven development inspired by the ending of Goethe’s Faust) taking in his later interests regarding esoteric archeology. Describing the slow decline of belief after Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, Wilson argues that “it was at this point, when religion seemed to have reached it’s lowest ebb, that a new epoch began” – the Romantic era, exemplified by novels such as Richardson’s Pamela, Rousseau’s New Heloise and Goethe’s own explosive and controversial Sorrows of Young Werther. It would be this revolution which would lead to vast works such as Proust’s, which investigate the interior monologue of consciousness, and help to change it. Exiting the pious religious age and entering the Romantic state of inner examination, we “began the most interesting stage of [our] development so far”. Super Consciousness charts this development and points the way forward. Wilson’s philosophy, his ‘new’ or phenomenological existentialism was also known as ‘Romanticism Mark Three’ (the second, according to Wilson, was the existentialism of Heidegger, Sartre and Camus). Here he weaves many different strands from his previous works – his philosophy, ‘occultism’, criminology, literary criticism, bicameral brain theories, history, archeology and (auto)biography – into a seamless whole. No previous knowledge of any of this is needed, though it would be hoped that curious readers will delve deeper into these areas, and look further into the subjects and references Wilson discusses. One of Wilson best aspects was his tireless ability to peak interest in other unorthodox thinkers and present them in a fresh manner. Reviewers of the first edition of Super Consciousness had observed that Wilson was “one of the few thinkers who has stood out against the endemic pessimism and defeatism of our times, and the tendency to reject substance and meaning in favour of image and ephemera”. Wilson had “clearly followed the key intellectual developments [since The Outsider in 1956] and has interesting observations to make on phenomenology” despite, the second reviewer notes, working outside of the academy – an intellectual luxury which enabled Wilson to avoid the academic trap of obsessing over minor details (the near) in favour of what the reviewer calls “‘big picture’ thinking”. Super Consciousness still presents a panoramic view of our infinite possibilities.
With thanks to Lydia at Watkins.